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Chocolate comprises a number of raw and processed foods produced from the seed of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. Cacao has been cultivated for at least three millennia in Mexico, Central and South America, with its earliest documented use around 1100 BC. The majority of the Mesoamerican peoples made chocolate beverages, including the Aztecs, who made it into a beverage known as xocolātl, a Nahuatl word meaning "bitter water". The seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste, and must be fermented to develop the flavour.
After fermentation, the beans are dried, cleaned and roasted; the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground to cocoa mass, pure chocolate in rough form. Because this cocoa mass usually is liquefied then moulded with or without other ingredients, it is called chocolate liquor. The liquor also may be processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Unsweetened baking chocolate (bitter chocolate) contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, combining cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fat and sugar. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that additionally contains milk powder or condensed milk. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, sugar, milk but no cocoa solid and thus does not qualify to be considered true chocolate.
Cocoa solids contain alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine, which have physiological effects on the body. It has been linked to serotonin levels in the brain. Some research found that chocolate, eaten in moderation, can lower blood pressure. Dark chocolate has recently been promoted for its health benefits, including a substantial amount of antioxidants that reduce the formation of free radicals, although current scientific evidence is against health improvements by dietary antioxidants. The presence of theobromine renders it toxic to some animals, especially dogs and cats.
Chocolate has become one of the most popular food types and flavours in the world. Gifts of chocolate moulded into different shapes have become traditional on certain holidays: chocolate bunnies and eggs are popular on Easter, chocolate coins on Hanukkah, Santa Claus and other holiday symbols at Christmas and hearts on Valentine's Day. Chocolate is also used in cold and hot beverages, to produce chocolate milk and hot chocolate. The world's top producer of cacao beans is Africa.
Chocolate is sold in chocolate bars, which come in dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate varieties. Some bars that are mostly chocolate have other ingredients blended into the chocolate, such as nuts, raisins or crisped rice. Chocolate is used as an ingredient in a huge variety of candy bars, which typically contain various confectionary ingredients (e.g., nougat, wafers, caramel, nuts, etc.) which are coated in chocolate. Chocolate is used as a flavouring product in many desserts, such as chocolate cakes, chocolate brownies, chocolate mousse and chocolate chip cookies. Numerous types of candy and snacks contain chocolate, either as a filling (e.g., M&M's) or as a coating (e.g. chocolate-coated raisins or chocolate-coated peanuts). Some non-alcoholic beverages contain chocolate, such as chocolate milk, hot chocolate and chocolate milkshakes. Some alcoholic liqueurs are flavoured with chocolate, such as chocolate liqueur and creme de cacao. Chocolate is a popular flavour of ice cream and pudding and chocolate sauce is a commonly added as a topping on ice cream sundaes.
Chocolate manufacturers produce a range of products from chocolate bars to fudge. Large manufacturers of chocolate products include Cadbury (the world's largest confectionery manufacturer) Guylian, The Hershey Company, Lindt & Sprüngli, Mars, Incorporated, Milka, Neuhaus and Suchard. Guylian is best known for its chocolate sea shells; Cadbury for its Dairy Milk and Creme Egg. The Hershey Company, the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America, produces the Hershey Bar and Hershey's Kisses. Mars Incorporated, a large privately owned U.S. corporation, produces Mars Bar, Milky Way, M&M's, Twix and Snickers. Lindt is known for its truffle balls and gold foil-wrapped Easter bunnies.
Food conglomerates Nestlé SA and Kraft Foods both have chocolate brands. Nestlé acquired Rowntree's in 1988 and now markets chocolates under their own brand, including Smarties (a chocolate candy) and Kit Kat (a candy bar); Kraft Foods through its 1990 acquisition of Jacobs Suchard, now owns Milka and Suchard. In February 2010, Kraft also acquired British-based Cadbury. Fry's, Trebor Basset and the fair trade brand Green & Black's also belongs to the group.